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Three Men Questioned Over Terrorist Concerns in Florida

Aired September 13, 2002 - 14:00   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: A stretch of the South Florida highway, also known as Alligator Alley, remains the scene of intense scrutiny this hour. As you know, if you have been watching us today, three men are being questioned over terrorism concerns.
CNN's Mark Potter joins us now live from the scene to bring us up to date -- Mark.

MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Kyra. We are alongside I-75 where the search that has been going on for hours continues. To bring you up to speed, there are two cars that authorities have been going through. The first car was cleared. The authorities say that they went through it and they found nothing at all to suggest any sort of explosive device. They used a robot device to pull items out of the car. A bombs technician went in and pulled the rest out that a robot couldn't get. They went through it all, and they said that that car was clear. There was no evidence whatsoever, and so the car was moved off to the side so that they could concentrate on the second car.

That's where they are right now. They are working on that second car. They have been at it for some time now. And we don't know how long this is going to take. We have been given estimates anywhere from an hour to several hours. But what we do know is that until they clear the second car, this highway, this stretch of highway will remain closed, as it has been closed all day today.

As for the three men, they are still being held here at the scene. They are described as detainees. They have not been arrested. They are not being called suspects. Officials who spoke to us a short while ago said that they are being treated well, that they are being held in a van in air conditioning and that they that are being fed, and everyone here is just waiting to see what the officials can come up with as they continue the search of the second car.

We are told that the procedure there is they will use the robot to pull what it can out, just like they did with the first car. The technician will pull out the rest, and then a supervisor will oversee the materials that come out. He will look and see what he can set aside, visually, what he can clear visually, and then they'll bring in an X-ray device to look at rest of the material, and also they have a machine that was brought in from the FBI to check for any sort of radiation.

That process, we're told, is still under way, and as soon as we get word that the second car has been cleared or that anything has been found, we will let you know. But the mood here, it seems, looking at the law enforcement officials is that they do not -- they are not acting as if they are expecting anything to happen. They are very close in on the car. If they expected an explosion, of course most would be far away. We would be moved back. And so that's the situation right now. It is developing, but it looks like we are heading toward clearance of the second car, but that hasn't happened yet. Back to you, Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Mark Potter, thanks so much.

Well, as you've been hearing, a Georgia woman alerted police when she says she overheard men discussing some kind of action. She was in a restaurant and said the men said, quote, "they think they were sad on 9-11; wait until 9-13." Here's more of what Eunice Stone says she heard.


EUNICE STONE, WITNESS: So they said they had attended a party in Chicago the night before and that they needed to quit stopping, because they were five hours late. And then I just naturally, my curiosity -- I just kept listening, and something else was said, they were kind of huddled together there over the booth talking,. And then one guy said, "do you think that will bring it down?" And I looked at my son and we were just looking at each other, and he said, well, if that don't bring it down, I have contacts, I'll get enough to bring it down. And to me, that meant they were planning to blow up something.


PHILLIPS: Police are being very careful not to call the three men in question here suspects, but who are they? CNN justice correspondent Kelli Arena has been doing some digging. She joins us live again -- once again, from Washington -- Kelli.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Kyra, the three men have been described to us by officials as medical students, who are on their way to work at a hospital as part of a program. They had not named the hospital. But it is sort of a temporary internship type program that the three say they were headed to. They are of Middle Eastern descent. Two are naturalized U.S. citizens; one is U.S.-born citizen. They have been described as in their early 20s, early to mid-20s.

The FBI, along with several other local and state agencies, have run checks of the names that they have provided. There's nothing has come up on the intelligence. There is no prior intelligence to suggest that these individuals had any -- have any link to any terrorist organization, at least they are not on the radar screen. And again, we have to point out that there are no charges that have been filed, no evidence that has been found that connects these three individuals to any crime, let alone an act of terrorism.

They remain in custody. They are still -- they are being questioned. And that's where we stand. It is a work in progress. As you know, as Mark reported, the vehicle continues to be combed through. What brought investigators to those vehicles was that as you heard, there was a report that was called in. Then when there was a -- be on the lookout, that was put out through the state of Florida, a very detailed description of the vehicle, and the license plate number was provided to law enforcement authorities. They were able to pick up one vehicle. The other just voluntarily came in behind.

One vehicle has been released. The reason the bomb squad is even there is not because of any intelligence, but only because bomb- sniffing dogs were brought on the scene, and they did what's called that they were alerted, which means that they were reacting to something in the vehicle.

Now, that could be anything. It could be, at the worst case scenario, explosives or an activation device. On the other end, it could be fireworks that were in the vehicle for the July 4th holiday, or it could be hunting shells that were in the vehicle. Anything can trigger off the dogs. They are not specialized one way or the other.

So right now, it is an investigation that continues. No charges have been filed, no hard evidence of any terrorism link at this time, Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right. Kelli Arena, thank you so much.

ARENA: You're welcome.

PHILLIPS: The Alligator Alley investigation led briefly from the outskirts in the Everglades to a suburb of Chicago. CNN's Jeff Flock is live from Hanover Park from there, where it seems pretty calm. Hi, Jeff.

JEFF FLOCK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Kyra. A bit of a mystery, though. They in fact traced the plates from one of those vehicles to a residence here in Hanover Park, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago. They went and visited that residence this morning. But at this point, they cannot figure out why the plate down in Florida matches up with the one registered here in Illinois.

In fact, at this hour, we are waiting at the Hanover Park Police Department for the alleged owner of the vehicle to -- that claims the plate is still on his car. He doesn't know how either the same plate or a knock-off of that plate or perhaps an old plate may have wound up on a vehicle down in Florida.

But police here told us just a short time ago that they are very confident that the family to whom that plate is registered here in the suburbs of Chicago has no connection either to Florida or to terrorism or anything else. But they still have a mystery as to how that plate got on that car down in Florida.

As I said, they are still waiting now for the driver of that car to bring the car in question over here to the police department so that they can look at the plate and see if, in fact, it truly does match up. But they believe it does and they have no reason to doubt the story. So a little bit of a mystery, but perhaps not one that is inexplicable. That's the latest, Kyra, back to you. PHILLIPS: All right, Jeff, thanks so much.




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